Category Archives: Technology

Could Capitalism Be the Enemy?

pogo_-_earth_day_1971_poster

Earth Day 1971 Poster, from Wikipedia entry on “Pogo”

Like many other people these days, I’m asking a lot of questions, and I’m not finding too many satisfying answers. But that doesn’t matter. We should all be suspicious of quick—and satisfying—answers. While it might produce a kind of temporary euphoria, the tendency to try to solve our problems quickly and neatly is precisely what seems to have landed the world in this precarious position, with climate changes staring us in the face as we confront unprecedented human migration across increasingly hostile borders. It is a scary place to be.

One question I’ve been asking is this: could capitalism, with its emphasis on constant growth and acquisition of wealth, be the evil spirit lurking behind this state of affairs? This is a difficult question to consider, and it’s likely that few people will be brave enough to confront and admit such a question. (For curious readers, here is an article in last week’s New Yorker that explains, at least in part, why new ideas and self-criticism meet such resistance.)  But it’s worthwhile to lay out a few arguments for this menacing explanation, even if not many people take the time to consider it.

First of all, capitalism, with its emphasis on garnering profit, depends on constantly expanding market shares. It doesn’t work in a static environment; in order for a capitalist economy to function well, it must grow. And yet, as any observant person realizes, constant growth simply isn’t sustainable. Eventually the market place becomes saturated. When that happens, there are few options for the capitalist enterprise: either it expands its market—in which the same thing will happen a few years, or decades, later—or it works to cut out competitors and appropriate their growth and their profit. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, or an economist, to determine that this process isn’t feasible for long-term stability in a society dedicated to equity and the pursuit of happiness.

And that brings up the second problem with capitalism as it has developed. The acquisition of profit and material goods seems to be insufficient for the kind of capitalists, the captains of industry, we have created in recent years. In other words, the most successful capitalists have become so wealthy that it is ludicrous to suppose that they are intent on gathering still more money, or luxuries, for themselves. How many mansions are necessary for a person’s, even a family’s, happiness? Is it really necessary for Mark Zuckerberg to own 700 acres of prime Hawaiian land—and to sue longtime landowners to make sure that his privacy on this new piece of property is inviolable? One theory about the tendency of the super-wealthy to engage in this kind of action this states that capitalism’s great heroes and heroines garner not only wealth for themselves, but happiness as well. And, since happiness is not as easy to gauge as material wealth, the best way to determine whether one is happy is to compare oneself to those who are not happy. This, in essence, is what capitalism does: it takes happiness away from people in order to create a sense of happiness in the capitalist, who, numb to the thrill of wealth and plenty, cannot determine whether he is actually happy unless he can be sure that there are others who have been made unhappy by his own acquisitive actions. This view of capitalism presents it in a horrifying, sordid light. It goes something like this: once their quest for great wealth has met with success, capitalists create another quest for themselves: that of acquiring the happiness of others. This kind of theorizing leads to a truly disconcerting question: What if the “pursuit of happiness” mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, and so dear to every American citizen, has become a literal pursuit, in which the happiness of others becomes fair game for pursuing? This frightening scenario, in which capitalists resemble Dementors more than anything else, may well be taking place in our society.

But we need not enter the world of Harry Potter to find a third reason to reexamine capitalism in our time: it appears to be antithetical to the idea of ecological conservation. I could argue this carefully, in a step-by-step demonstration of the ways in which capitalism abuses the natural environment, but this is quite unnecessary, with stories like Standing Rock, Line 5, the Kalamazoo River oil spill, fracking, and other items in the news. We all know that big business cares little about the natural resources it uses, regarding these resources like factory machinery as it tries to figure out a way to produce still more oil for an ever-growing market. The argument that capitalism stands in opposition to safeguarding our environment has undoubtedly been made before, and it is unnecessary to go into it at length here.

Instead, I would like to offer a fourth reason that capitalism may be the enemy. It depends on competition, maintaining that competition brings out the best in people. But even Darwin, as this article in The Guardian points out, believed that cooperation was at least as  important in evolution as competition.

I have little hope that I can change anyone’s mind about capitalism. Most Americans cling to their belief that it offers us, and the world at large, the best way to live—period. Besides, changing our ideology would be too great a task to undertake.

Or would it?

As we encounter more and more crises, sooner or later we will have to face the fact that Americans are not always the good guys, as we have been taught to believe. Ideology is a difficult veil to penetrate—in fact, it may be impossible to penetrate the veil at all, and we may have to be satisfied with shifting it aside from time to time to try to catch a mere glimpse of the truth. Denying the efficacy and value of capitalism is a scary proposition, and doing so necessitates that we decide what will take its place—another scary proposition. It will take some time to reach the point where we can face these difficult ideological problems. But I believe we will get there. For now, let’s start by admitting that the old comic strip from 1971 was right: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

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Filed under culture, History, Politics, Technology, Uncategorized

Television in the Age of Netflix

 

Let’s face it: we all need to escape from our reality every so often. It’s a fact of human nature, and I would guess that all human beings throughout all ages engage in escapism. The paleoglyphs in Lascaut, France,  as well as those in Painted Rocks, Arizona, were probably produced by hunter-gatherers who had tired of their daily grind, early humans who were looking for some type of entertainment outside the bounds of their usual activities. No doubt in medieval times, Europeans escaped the poverty and hardship of their lives through the romance, ritual, and mystery offered by the Church. In other words, the tendency to indulge in escapism is nothing to be ashamed of; on the contrary, it’s probably one of the few things that sets us apart from animals and makes us human.

All of this is a long, roundabout way of introducing my latest form of escapism: television. Of course, people have been escaping through television programs since the first transmissions occurred in the 1920s and ’30s. (My grandmother bought a set of World Encyclopedias in 1933, which I used to love skimming through as a child. Here “television” was deemed an experimental technology, which some people argued might one day reach the popularity of radio, although this was doubtful, according to the editors of the article.) But television has changed, as everyone knows. Netflix and Amazon, along with Hulu and other streaming platforms, have made it possible to binge watch shows, consuming in three days what used to take several months of patience, waiting for Wednesday nights to come around in order to watch the next episode of a favorite show.

What interests me isn’t so much the personal habits of television-watching; frankly, I’d rather not know who else is staying up late watching five episodes of a show in a single night. Some things should be private, after all. Instead, I think it’s important to point out that not only have the means of reception changed in this industry; the means of production (or at least of distribution) have changed profoundly as well, making it possible for Americans like me to watch any number of interesting programs, some of which would never be available in this country without streaming television. In my view, Netflix is the best thing to happen to television since Milton Berle himself.

And yet there’s one small problem. What’s missing from this plentiful choice of programs is a way of sorting through all of them.

Until now. I am pitching in to do my part in helping clueless viewers, like myself, figure out what to watch in order to avoid another boring evening at home filing receipts or folding clothes. Below I offer  a list of shows that I’ve watched recently. (Note: I omit shows like Broadchurch and Stranger Things, since they have become mainstream. The purpose of this list is to alert people to shows that are, so far as I can tell, still under the radar.) I recommend all of them. It’s true that some are less entrancing than others, but all of them are interesting and are worth watching through at least a couple of episodes.

  1. River. A psychological police procedural that is riveting. Skellan Skarsgard and Nicola Walker present fantastic performances in a miniseries that is impossible to stop watching.
  2. The Detectorists. Don’t be put off by the beginning of the series: it looks like an English version of Dumb and Dumber, but it’s not. Stick with it and by the third episode, you’ll be hooked. Season Two just became available, but I have not yet allowed myself to watch it, because I’m worried that it will fall prey to sophomore slump, like Grace and Frankie and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which seem to have become rather sophomoric in their second years.
  3. The Returned (French version only!). This provides a subtle horror feel in a program that presents interesting scenery and unusual characters, all while helping you review your high school French.
  4. Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories. A strange little episodic show, based in a diner that is only open from midnight to 8 am. It’s odd but interesting, with a fascinating peek into Japanese culture.
  5. Fearless. This is my current guilty pleasure. This documentary on professional bull riders is exceptionally well done, from the very unusual opening sequence and music (shown above) to the many interviews with Brazilian and American rodeo bull riders it presents. Even if you’re not a fan of PBR, it’s worth watching for the insight on the lives these men and their families lead and for the excellent cinematography.

All of these are interesting shows, and each provides a nice little escape from a contentious (sometimes ridiculous) election year and other disturbing news stories. Take a look if you have a chance. And don’t be afraid to binge watch: your secret is safe with me.

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Filed under culture, Technology, Television

In Praise of Lost Work

Every semester, I have students come to me with anguished faces: their work is lost, sent into cyber-oblivion by an ill-timed and unexpected computer shut-down. I take a moment to sympathize with them; although I am a professor, that doesn’t make me a monster who deals and delights in schadenfreude. But I don’t allow the pity party to continue very long. Buck up, I tell them. You wrote that paper once; you can write it again, certainly. They look at me like I’m crazy. “What? Write the whole thing again? Do you know how long it took me to write it in the first place?” I shrug, unimpressed by their misery, and that’s where the trouble starts, and why it’s important for me to take this opportunity to make my point clear.

I know what it’s like to lose an important piece of work. Over the past five years, I’ve had at least as many computer melt-downs. The IT people at my college have begun to look at me with suspicion, in fact, because I have had so many catastrophic computer failures. Maybe that’s why I’ve become pretty blase about lost work; it’s also why I have an external hard drive that I use frequently, why I save my work all the time, and why I often email myself multiple copies of important files. But the truth is that some of what we lose is not worth saving. Sometimes it’s good to lose things–and not only because it builds character. When I point this out to my students, they begin to protest, and then I take them through a tour of lost literary works.

Two examples: Some of us may have labored through Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution: A History (published in 1837), which he worked on for well over three years before giving  it to his friend John Stuart Mill to read before publication. Like any good writer, Carlyle wanted feedback from his respected colleague. Unfortunately, Mill’s chamber maid, who was illiterate, mistook the manuscript for a pile of used paper, with which she started Mill’s bedroom fire. Here is a rather whimsical picture of the tragedy by an unknown Japanese artist:

Image from "The French Revolution: A History," in Wikipedia

Image from “The French Revolution: A History,” in Wikipedia

Carlyle didn’t sit and bewail his fate, nor did the sad event destroy his friendship with Mill. Instead, keeping in step with his own philosophy, Carlyle sat down and wrote the whole damn thing again–all three volumes of it. The French Revolution: A History went on to become, if not a best-seller, a well respected work that made Carlyle’s reputation. Charles Dickens used it (as well as a wheelbarrow-load of other sources delivered by Carlyle himself) when he wrote A Tale of Two Cities.

Of course, another excellent, and more recent, example of lost work is that of Ernest Hemingway, whose wife Hadley lost an entire suitcase of Hemingway’s work in 1922 while traveling to meet him in Geneva. She had wanted to surprise him by bringing all of his work with her so he could work on it while in Geneva; unfortunately, it went missing in the Gare de Lyon. Only a few, previously published, works survive from before this period as a result. Some scholars believe Hemingway, who took the next train back to Paris to double-check for carbon copies in his apartment (there were none–Hadley had brought them, too), blamed his wife; they feel this may have been the first rupture in a marriage that was destined to end some three years later. However, the couple look pretty happy in this picture, apparently taken a short time after the incident:

Ernest and Hadley, in Chamby, Switzerland, 1922. From Wikipedia.org

 

The truth is that Hemingway set out to replace those stories with others, and now, so many years later, we feel no sense of loss at their disappearance–only a mild curiosity and bemusement, as well as admiration for a writer who, faced with the loss of a great dea of his work, set out to recreate it, and, with characteristic courage and determination, to surpass it in quality.

I hope all my readers understand what this means. Losing a manuscript, or a document, or a whole slew of documents, isn’t the end of the world. Sometimes, it can even be a good thing.

In addition, it means that somewhere in Paris, in some old  grenier or cave,  is a valise full of first-edition Hemingway stories, and they’re probably worth millions.

Stock image from http://thumbs.dreamstime.com/z/old-valise-15409839.jpg

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Online Privacy Concerns Are a Non-Issue

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Ever since Edward Snowden defected after blowing the whistle on the NSA and its tendency to spy on normal citizens, there’s been a lot of talk about privacy and how it is being redefined during our lifetimes. We live in an exceptional age–the Age of the Internet–and this means that we leave a digital trail behind us every time we go on the internet to buy things, look things up, or watch things. We have traded the public square for a virtual platform; Facebook has become the place we go to hang out, talking to–and about–other people. We’ve traded our homey little coffee shop or bar for a social media program that displays our lives like an open Kindle book.

While it’s normal to be concerned about the fact that we are now all ultimately and essentially visible with all our tastes and tendencies apparent for all to see, concerns about the loss of privacy are greatly overstated. It would be impossible to be completely invisible, even if it were desirable. Each of us leaves a wake behind us as we travel through life, as surely as a boat leaves a wake even through the most turbulent waters it passes through. Only by living alone, in the midst of a wilderness, could we assure complete anonymity, a situation that seems to me inherently un-human and completely undesirable.

Humans are meant to live together. When we live together, in towns, cities, and small, rural communities, we brush up against each other. This is nothing new: we have always lived close to each other, and we have always left our trails behind us, whether in the refuse we produce (garbage, recycling, heavy trash), in the lives we create and those we touch (for better and for worse), and in the friendships we create–and terminate. It is–and should be–nearly impossible to skim across this life without leaving any signs of our existence. When we hear of someone who has achieved this, we feel no admiration for him or her but rather lament this kind of Prufrockian existence, this Willy Loman-ish life that fades into nothingness as soon as it ends.

Leaving traces of ourselves–even digital traces–is thus a good thing. It proves that we exist, if only for a short time. Of course, what worries people about the new, lower standard of privacy is that we are remarkably open with our computers; we type things into our browsers that we would be embarrassed to say in public. Browsers are much like our pets: we have few inhibitions in front of our dogs and cats, after all, and taking them into the bathroom, or into our beds, is quite common. If they could talk about us, we would surely be less inclined to be so open around them.

The development of the internet means that it is now quite easy for a government entity, or a commercial enterprise, to sweep in and find out things about us that we would not openly advertise or perhaps even admit. This is, however, nothing new. Governments have spied upon their citizens, seizing manuscripts and intercepting letters for the last thousand years, and in all likelihood back to classical times and pre-history. Complaining about our loss of privacy is ultimately futile, since there is nothing we can do about it. All forms of communication have always been co-opted by those in power and used to oppress others. The FBI engaged in wiretapping in the 1950s and 1960s, just as the first Queen Elizabeth’s informants spied on those engaged in illegal wool trading, men like William Shakespeare’s own father, John Shakespeare.

However, I’m not opposed to those who want new legislation to protect our privacy; in fact, I am grateful that they are willing to exert their energy and spend their time fighting this good fight. At the same time, it’s important to realize that there is no explicitly stated right to privacy in the Constitution. It would be hard to ensure such a right, in any case. And while I commend those who are committed to fight this battle for us in order to preserve some small degree of digital privacy, my point is that the threat to online privacy, important as it is in some respects, is not one we should lose sleep over. There are other, more dangerous threats out there right now–like the defunding of public education, for example. But that’s a topic for another blog.

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